Brain Food: Mysterious Skunks of the High Country
Mild winters make skunks more active. Instead of resting and preserving their energy, they venture out of their dens and hunt for food. Tad Theimer is a vertebrate biologist and associate professor at Northern Arizona University.
“I like to tell people that skunk dens are more like skunk motels. You check in for a few days and then you check out and you go to another motel. And, any one skunk has maybe five to 10 motels that it uses through the course of a year. And each time it checks in, there could be a different set of skunks using the same motel,” Theimer says.
All this social activity means there’s a greater chance of passing on diseases like rabies. Cases are up this year in southern Arizona, and Theimer expects the same trend in the northern part of the state.
“So, what we find is that rabies outbreaks usually occur at a frequency of maybe five to seven years, and we don’t exactly understand why that occurs. But, for example, we had 2001, and then 2005, 2009, and now we're kind of coming up on the cusp of another potential outbreak,” he says.
Theimer's research shows that the majority of skunks in the Flagstaff area live in human neighborhoods, not the forest. He sets up cameras at night near bird feeders and pet food bowls to see how many skunks come out — and, how they interact.
“One of most amazing things is we saw aggressive interactions in the presence of cat food that we never saw in the absence of cat food. So we had skunks charging each at other, biting each other, rolling each other — doing exactly the kinds of behaviors that would transfer disease,” he says.
Theimer says to reduce Flagstaff’s skunk population we have to reduce the number of things that attract them. He recommends bringing pet food inside at night, and installing fencing around bird feeders and compost piles.